Kailash Satyarthi is fighting the use of child labor by creating domestic and international consumer resistance to products made by bonded children, as well as with direct legal and advocacy work. Through a number of training programs, he also helps children sold to pay their parents' debts to find new lives and serve as agents of prevention within their communities.
The New Idea
Since the reason for hiring bonded child labor is profit (it is less expensive than adult labor), Kailash Satyarthi knew that he had to counter the abusive practice with a strategy that was also economic. Thus, he initiated a multifaceted movement that punishes the perpetrators with a loss of market share while rewarding those who restructure their enterprises away from a dependence on child labor. In a matter of a few years, Kailash's organization, the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude, has already become South Asia's most effective lobby for boycotting the products of manufacturers who employ child labor.
Kailash's most visible work centers on the carpet industry–the region's most expensive export item. He created the Rugmark Foundation to monitor, certify and affix labels on carpets guaranteeing that they have not been made by bonded children and are eligible for export. Carpet manufacturers must be licensed by the Foundation to use the Rugmark logo. The Board of Directors of the Foundation is comprised of representatives of citizens' organizations, the Indo-German Export Promotion Program, UNICEF and the Carpet Manufacturers Association without Child Labour, an association representing half of the carpet manufacturers and exporters in India.
The Foundation complements its activism by offering an alternative to the families of the child debt slaves. It seeks to replace bonded children in carpet-making units by promoting the employment of adults in the industry and ensuring that they will be paid the established minimum wages and additional benefits that Labour Acts accord them. This could alleviate adult unemployment in the region, bring stability to household budgets and increase worker productivity. The Foundation also wants to promote and further the trade prospects of establishments that are committed to the Rugmark Foundation criteria in the national and international markets.
Kailash also seeks to broaden the scope of the Rugmark Foundation's work from the carpet-making industry to the brick making, brassware, fireworks, handloom and other industries that are completely dependent, as they are currently structured, on child labor. At the local level, Kailash's organization has launched the BachPan Bachao Andolan. Translated, this means the Movement to Rescue Childhood. So far, the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude is responsible for the release of more than 40,000 bonded laborers of whom 27,000 have been children. Approximately 7,000 have been rescued from the carpet-making industry alone. Children and parents in bondage have been released through direct intervention and raids, by legal court intervention and even by the highest court of the country.
Kailash has also set up a transitional skill-building and leadership-training program for the recently released children at his vocational training center, Mukti Ashram. The program is designed to equip the children with vocational skills with which they can build a lifetime career. Children are also trained to create awareness of debt slavery among vulnerable peer groups in their communities so they can avoid the manipulations of contractors who lure children into bonded labor with promises of high economic return. These children become effective social agents and role models who return to their villages as potential liberators. In this way, Kailash is helping to break the cycle before it begins.
Child labor makes up one quarter of the unskilled labor force in the organized and unorganized sectors of South Asia. It is established that South Asia has more than 80 million children in servitude, 20 million of whom are in "chronic bondage." Of India's 140 million working children, 55 million are in servitude and 10 million are bonded slaves to their employers.
Economic pressures force families to sell their children into servitude. Every year, millions of children are sold against petty loans taken by their parents or work as contributing members of entire families in bondage. This labor pool is cheap and inexhaustible because of a high birth rate, an education system that does not reach the economically depressed, rural indebtedness and severe poverty. As they join the ranks of debt slaves, bonded children compete with adults–often their own parents–for whatever jobs are available. Their wages are slashed to a quarter of the adult wages for the same work or they are paid "maintenance" in the form of food and "training." In many areas, the surplus of cheap child labor has depressed the already inadequate adult wages.
Children born or sold into chronic bondage work in conditions that do not allow for release. In the event of the death of parents, the task of paying off the loans falls to the child. The complicity of employers, middlemen and moneylenders ensnares the child in a vicious cycle of loan repayment that will ordinarily never release him from debt. Such children work twelve to sixteen hours a day and are beyond the reach of their families' care. They are malnourished and abused physically for perceived "errors" such as slouching on the workbench or taking their eyes off their work. Child abuse increases as the workforce of bonded children grows.
In many ways, bonded child labor perpetuates traditional hierarchies of power. Children continue to be employed in jobs that are concomitant with the caste occupations traditionally ascribed to their communities. For example, children from the "unclean" caste groups are employed as rag pickers, scavengers and sweepers while children from families of landless laborers are sold to owners of agricultural plots.
Employing bonded child labor is a quick way for the owners of thousands of agricultural and unorganized manufacturing units across the country to boost their profit margins and ensure a docile and dependent workforce. The system of bonded child labor is sustained by an assortment of criminal alliances between semi-feudal employers, power brokers, local criminals and middlemen or contractors who recruit, maintain and control the network of children in servitude. These alliances operate in complicity with corrupt local administrations and law enforcement agencies to deceive prohibitive legal instruments like the Child Labour Acts and the factory acts that prohibit employment of children in a factory or hazardous industry. For example, no employer has yet been punished for violation of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 that identifies the carpet industry as a hazardous industry. A common tactic for employers of child labor is to pose as relatives of children and shield their enterprise by calling it a family trade.
Often, help for a child comes too late. As nongovernmental organizations and certain government bodies and officials mobilize to eliminate child labor, the time between identification and release of the child debt slave allows for enough time to browbeat a child back to the only kind of life with which he or she is familiar.
Kailash's work is based on three major strategic thrusts. He organizes raids to identify and free bonded children; seeks to rehabilitate them by providing vocational training; and works intensively with the media and sympathetic groups to build national and international consumer resistance.
He has set up a network of twelve nongovernmental organizations that conducts random checks in various carpet-manufacture units to identify, inspect and consequently take action against those who employ bonded children. The committee is part of the Rugmark Foundation and works to ensure that all carpet-making units bear the trademark Product Made by Adults. A presentation by Kailash before the UN Human Rights Sub-Commission in Geneva in 1991 resulted in the UN approving the system of labeling as a method to eradicate child labor in South Asia's carpet industry.
Kailash's concern for rehabilitation of rescued children led to the establishment of Mukti Ashram in 1991 to train 1,000 of them from the states of Bihar, Orrissa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Harayana. In groups of 60, he trains two categories of children–those below fourteen years of age and those who are older. Both groups receive basic training in literacy, health, hygiene and social issues. The older children are also given vocational training.
At Mukti Ashram, children are oriented in trades such as carpentry, tailoring, and manufacture of cane and bamboo products and are given formal education. Their self-esteem is nourished through group discussions on current political and social issues, the legal system and their rights. They create slogans and posters and also manage the Ashram. These activities have helped to initiate them into leadership responsibilities.
When the children return to their villages, the Ashram keeps track of its trainees and provides follow-up rehabilitation. Most of the trainees are now economically independent and have set up small enterprises in their villages. They are also mobilizing their communities to fight for their rights. Some play a role in critical interventions and raids. Kailash is replicating his model in other selected vulnerable areas and is also lobbying the government to replicate the model and take serious the responsibility for rehabilitating victims of debt slavery.
Kailash's Coalition has already set up fourteen nonformal education centers for children who were freed from chronic bondage in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Harayana and Delhi. The group has launched an awareness campaign through a network of organizations to facilitate the admission of these children to schools and is also pressuring the government to set up new schools to provide customized training for them. In addition, international groups, such as Bread for the World, Terre Des Hommes and Miserior and the German campaign partners of the Coalition, have set up a joint fund to enable local groups to set up rehabilitation and educational programs for children freed from the carpet industry.
At the national and international levels, the Coalition has brought traders, importers, consumers, nongovernmental organizations and journalists together by providing direct contact among them, widespread coverage in the print and electronic media, awareness walks, domestic consumer boycott campaigns and the establishment of various fora against child servitude. It has set up a parliamentary forum of 458 members of Parliament who belong to the major Indian political parties that monitors the issue and presses for greater governmental involvement in ending the practice. Kailash has also set up a forum of trade unions to bring the organized labor perspective to the movement. In a matter of a few years, Kailash has developed the Coalition into a conglomeration of more than 200 citizens' groups, human rights organizations, trade unions and other institutions from several countries. Its ability to generate a high level of international pressure is evidenced by the presentation of a bill by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman George Brown to ban the importation to the U.S. of all goods made by bonded children.
Consumers and producers have reacted favorably to Kailash's advocacy. A group of carpet manufacturers in India's major production belt have broken away from their traditional association and formed their own "Carpet Manufacturers' Association Without Child Labour." The intervention and networking skills of the Coalition were duly acknowledged when the organization received the Aachener International Peace Prize in 1994 in Germany.
Kailash was born in 1953 in the small Indian town of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. He has a degree in electrical engineering and a post-graduate diploma in high-voltage engineering.
After a few years of teaching engineering in a college in Bhopal, Kailash decided to work more directly for social change. Much of his motivation came from his experiences as a student, when he felt keenly the deprivation of less fortunate students and took initiatives to respond concretely to their needs. For example, he started a book bank for those who could not afford textbooks that eventually grew into a sustained, widespread effort.
Kailash is married, with a son and a daughter, who at age ten is, herself, an active volunteer crusader against child labor.